Artistic License, Controversy and Censorship

This quarter, all three photography classes; Black & White I, Color Photo, and Alternative Processes, participated in a project entitled “Questioning the Archive” which included a large-format self-portrait component as well as an additional archive. The self-portraits were displayed in the windows of Wilson Library, facing outward on 3 sides of the building.

Due to the nature of the project, it being presented in a public arena, it is subject to critique, vandalism, and can spark controversy. Several images have been moved or torn down and vandalized during the duration of this exhibition, including the disappearance of one particular image (as pictured above) by student Andrew Figgs.

This image has stirred up some controversy on campus and among visitors; whether directed at the fact that the image discusses gender identy and portrayal, or the use of the middle finger; discussion is being raised about artistic license and censorship.

From the photography professor, Garth Amundson:

Timeline and Facts:

1. Tuesday, May 25th, a 5th grade teacher from the county contacted me regarding Andrew Figgs’s piece. We had a civil discussion, and she was concerned that her students were exposed to the image. When I questioned her about what she found offensive, she didn’t really describe whether it was the middle finger or the cross-dressing. In any case, I stressed that I would not ask the student to remove the work, and that Western is a liberal arts institution, where students are invited to explore and express themselves. She said that she was going to write me, and I told her that I looked forward to her letter and I’d use it as a point of discussion in the classroom. To date she has not sent a letter.

2.  Later that day I sent an email to Chris Cox, the dean of libraries stating my position about students’ right to express themselves, and I assumed that the whole incident would quickly blow over.

3. Even later that day, one of my coworkers said that the 5th grade teacher’s concerns had been a point of discussion in an art department faculty meeting.

4. In order to address it directly, I emailed Madge Gleeson, art department chair, and Dean Guyette, CFPA, filling them in on the situation. Again, stating my position about the project, and students’ right to self expression on the university campus.

5. Unfortunately, over the Memorial Day weekend, Andrew’s piece was removed. According to Andrew, he spoke with Chris Cox, and he explained that it’s the risk of displaying work in the library. I don’t agree with this perspective, and I do think the work should be respected and remain in place. I’ve done this project for several years without incident.


Do you agree with replacing the print?

Should art on campus be appropriate for 5th graders?

How does audience, or “the public” define art?

What is your responsibility as an artist?

Is art inherently political? Landscape, body art, painting, photography?

Is this a non-issue to you because your piece is still hanging in the library windows?


Please share your comments and thoughts below. This is an open forum for anyone to discuss their opinions.

14 thoughts on “Artistic License, Controversy and Censorship

  1. Two fundamental principles come into play whenever a court must decide a case involving freedom of expression. The first is “content neutrality”– the government cannot limit expression just because any listener, or even the majority of a community, is offended by its content. In the context of art and entertainment, this means tolerating some works that we might find offensive, insulting, outrageous — or just plain bad.

    The second principle is that expression may be restricted only if it will clearly cause direct and imminent harm to an important societal interest. The classic example is falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a stampede. Even then, the speech may be silenced or punished only if there is no other way to avert the harm.

  2. Do you agree with replacing the print? Yes, I do.

    Should art on campus be appropriate for 5th graders? I think that the art on campus that was taken down (andrews piece, marybeths piece) WAS and Is appropriate for a 5th grade audience. Those children will grow up to form their own opinions irrespective of the things that we do and do not shield them from at any age or any place/time so ….. this whole facade of cleanliness is ridiculous, if we censor our own expression then the only lesson we are passing along to the youth is that censorship is appropriate, which it isn’t.
    to quote a famous leader from history “the youth are the future”
    hitler said that, i think.
    the problem with the situation is that that teacher from ferndale needs to educate each child well and not simply a “class” well. unfortunately not everyone that gets into education really cares about helping form free-thinking wonderful people. she had a problem with the print because it forms an obstacle to her job of passively and “appropriately” educating her students. kids need to not simply see things like andrews print but they need to be educated about those things/ topics. the earlier the better right?
    these things are common sense. the most well adjusted adults/ children had things explained to them correctly and sensibly not with control and fear.

    blah blah.

    How does audience, or “the public” define art? all i can really say is that i don’t worry about how the public or audience defines my artwork, because i know i can’t do anything about that. i make art for myself, or am trying to. and thats the way it has to be for me.

    What is your responsibility as an artist? to keep my mind free from the influence of bad horrible people, who exist and are not going away, thankfully.

    Is art inherently political? Landscape, body art, painting, photography? i feel like everything can be politicized but you can’t group common sense for a massive set of people as a general rule into any practice. Everything is different for everyone else and there are shades of grey that shift from person to person for different practices. what is appropriate for me will not be lock step the same for meg or garth or that teacher in ferndale. i feel like that is the problem with most of what i can grasp about politics, that its trying to hard to swim upstream. nature trumps human effort at order.

    Is this a non-issue to you because your piece is still hanging in the library windows?
    nope, this is an issue to me because i care about my fellow artist friends, and i feel like they should be afforded every opportunity to prove themselves. its hard for me not to mainly feel a little sorry for that class of children. kids are so impressionable.

    blah blah.

  3. I think it is interesting that we allow other organizations on campus to hold signs with fetus’ and blood and this teacher is offended over this…most children have been exposed to the middle finger…and about the crossdressing,the more exposure people get to it, hopefully the more acceptance.

  4. I am not an art student at Western, but I have been taking a media law class for my journalism major and this hits on points we have been discussing recently with regards to censorship. Unless the piece is obscene, it should not be taken down. A middle finger is not obscene– I’ve seen a 4-year-old deliver a middle finger. The fact that this 5th grade teacher is offended should not matter. As stated above, Western is a liberal arts college and some things on campus will not be accepted by some people. However, the concerns of one person should not have such an impact on a piece– but frequently does– be it art or writing/publishing. I believe that the piece should be displayed/replaced/returned in the window along with the rest of the photos from the classes. Western is a university– we should not be catering to 5th graders standards when most of the campus community is legally allowed to view X- and R-rated materials far more indecent than a middle finger.

    This is a concern of the freedom of expression, guaranteed to everyone through the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. There is no reason that a reasonable person would find this image offensive, thus it should be returned. If anyone has a problem with that, talk to a law professor about this and the First Amendment– they’ll clear it up for you.

  5. I believe this issue takes us to the question why do we live together. Why do we have a society? I remember learning once that when civilization or society is taken it cannot be given back. For a long time I did not understand this concept. Today I see it as if one wants to live in a society one must comply with the rules and standards set by a society. Weather we like it or not we all live together and a set of rules must be defined. This “Rules” might already exist and must be set by the members of the society. If someone doesn’t agree with the standards of the society has made as a whole then that person must not be allowed to live in the society.

    I don’t know if the picture is appropriate or not all I know is that it is nit about one person

  6. Thank you everyone for your input so far! I think it is very important for all of us to be having this discussion because this very event may impact art display and censorship on campus in the future. If you feel so inclined, ask your friends or professors or anyone to participate in this discussion, we want to get a lot of perspectives to weigh in and contribute.

  7. This idea of censorship and especially how the general public has been on my mind a lot since we’ve opened this discussion. Checking my email today, I saw an article on a similar issue.

    The matter is a mural painted at an elementary school, to help fight childhood obesity by encouraging walking/bikes. The main figure is a minority and a city councilman asked the artist to lighten his skin color. (later defended for artist reasons of making the child “look happier”) Being in a “non-racist” town in Arizona, I was disturbed by how my of an outcry there is. The artist began to paint over the face, but had to stop himself at the forehead.

    Like Mike was saying, what are we teaching these children by altering this work? Or with removing Andrew’s piece? The issues are different but similar I suppose, as the mural was not intended to offend. Overall, it makes me frustrated with people who are so closed off. So offendable.

    Here’s the article, with a video:|main|dl1|link3|

  8. When something is in the public realm, it has the possibility of becoming political or at least open for public comment. What is “political”? The work by Andrew Figgs is clearly creative and thought provoking. As Lara said above, most Americans, even 5th graders, have been exposed to the raised middle finger, probably as an expression of a variety of reactions, e.g., anger, ignorance, defiance. I would rather see something like this as an opportunity to talk about social interactions, appropriate behavior, and civility. Art should challenge as well as entertain and delight.

    • I would have to argue and say that art “should” challenge, entertain or delight is straight out a dangerously bold idea. Art is a personal experience, yes sometimes political or public or shared but no one has a right to put a stamp on what it should or should not be. my main beef with the whole thing is that we are expressing the notion that we have a right to not only tell andrew what his work is or was about but also to control it. and while we live in a nearly free market media driven world at this point i think we need heed some clearly marked lines drawn in the sand of time. people have been expressing themselves with art before they began working on being civil and this type of action, removing his work, is a direct revert back to our neolithic ways of bashing each other over the heads with clubs.

      its ridiculous.

      just my opinion.

  9. Do they care to ban Playboy, Hustler, Penthouse etc on campus as well? I guess not…. All we need is love… or at least… good humor!

    PS I did share the post on my Facebook already. Good luck!

  10. I think that the most interesting question is “How does audience, or ‘the public’ define art?”. Also, answering this question could help solve a great deal of questions surrounding the reaction to this piece.


    1. we shouldn’t be expected to cater content to 5th graders (nor would this be feasible).

    The first purpose of art is to surprise the viewer, which then makes them curious. Through satisfying their curiosity. Through satisfying their curiosity, the viewer becomes informed on whatever subject it is the artist wanted to illuminate.

    The success of the viewer understanding the content put forth by the artist is contingent on the quality of the artwork. I’m not going to make any personal conjectures on the quality of this artwork (perhaps being torn down was the artists’ intent), but I do think that the methods the artist used in trying to relay their content were certainly the cause for the ruckus.

    The very tight framing of the photo mixed with the aggressive gesture of the middle finger (which in the photo actually appears larger than the figure) was an interesting choice. The gesture is so pervasive and eye-catching that my attention is drawn almost exclusively towards it… and not even the second VERY IMPORTANT other half of the photograph: the student wearing makeup. Given this, it is almost as if the student is judging me, the viewer, for making conjectures about their preferences even BEFORE I HAVE NOTICED THEM. I don’t presume this was the intention, but this is the feeling the portrait raises in me.

    I’m guessing that this was the feeling that others thought, too… “what did I do wrong?!”. As many persons lacking art education seem to do, they didn’t look at this work critically and instead took it at face value: a big FUCK YOU. It seems a little more reasonable, then, why they took offense to the work.


    2. the public DOES NOT and CAN NOT define art. Any attempt to define art ends up as either a successful or unsuccessful attempt to define an artwork as “good” or “bad”, or more appropriately in this case, “controversial” or “obscene”.

    Something is art regardless of other’s view of it as non-art. While others may disagree with this fact, I think that most artists will see this statement as true… probably as a result of the time they’ve spent ‘in’ the creative process + their art education.

    However, the disconnect between artists/non-artists can often make persons critical of works like this. They ask “what gives them the right to do that?”. They should be asking this question, but what they’re failing to do is ask the proceeding questions whose answers will lend them to realize all of the wonderful things about art that we take for granted; all of the wonderful things that end up being confiscated and trashed because of others’ neglect to spend the time to look into your piece.


    3. art is not inherently political. However, this does not stop a viewer from making conjectures about the artwork’s potential political nature.

    The more you learn about controlling how your content is perceived through your work, the more you can guide the viewer into the questions you want them to ask when viewing the piece.


    When it comes to any art, I don’t agree in censorship (not many people do).

    However, given the manner in which the artist presented their content, as well as the public context in which it was placed … it was of little surprise that it was taken down.

    I think that replacing the print would be neither appropriate or inappropriate. What it would do is to add to the statement the artist was originally trying to say. Given this, I think it would be a good idea to think about exactly what doing this would say.

    If they agree with the implications, then go for it.

  11. If “Several images have been moved or torn down and vandalized during the duration of this exhibition,” why are no other images form the project included in this posting?

  12. Hey all, I just wanted to say thank you for contributing to this discussion i appreciate it a lot. I hope that it continues!

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